Graciela Iturbide's best photograph: a Mexican Seri woman
'She's from a tribe of ex-nomads. I call her Angel Woman – she looks as if she could fly off into the desert'
This was taken in Mexico's Sonoran desert in 1979. I was working on a series about the Mexican Seri people for the ethnographic archive of theNational Indigenous Institute. I was in Punta Chueca, near the border with Arizona, for a month and a half. At the time, there were only 500 people in the community, and since there were so few, I had to have their agreement when it came to taking portraits. It was difficult to start with, but we soon got to know each other.
The Seris are former nomads. For me, this photograph represents the transition between their traditional way of life, and the way capitalism has changed it. For example, they were building their houses from bricks rather than sticks. I liked the fact that they were autonomous and hadn't lost their traditions, but had taken what they needed from American culture. They believed that money promoted inequalities and individualism, and did not want to become a divided society.
On the day of this particular image, I went with a group to a cave where there are indigenous paintings. I took just one picture of this woman during the walk there. I call her Mujer Ángel [Angel Woman], because she looks as if she could fly off into the desert. She was carrying a tape recorder, which the Seris got from the Americans, in exchange for handicrafts such as baskets and carvings, so they could listen to Mexican music.
When I got back from Punta Chueca, I developed my films and went through the contact sheets, but I didn't notice this photograph. Then my editor visited me and asked about it. I didn't remember taking it, which isn't something that normally happens to me: I always know what I have taken. That's what makes it my favourite photograph: a present from the desert that surprised me.
I went back to Punta Chueca to put on an exhibition of the series. The Seris were not impressed because the photographs are black and white, and they were used to being photographed by Americans with Polaroids. But in the end they did take their own portraits home, so they must have liked them
Born: Mexico City, 1942.
Studied: National University of Mexico's Film School.
High point: "Working every day and hoping to take better photographs."
Low point: "There hasn't been one. Being a photographer is like therapy for me."
Text and image courtesy of The Guardian